In Honor of Firefighters

In Honor of Firefighters September 11, 2011

Today, remembering 9/11, I have been thinking about parts of two posts I wrote in 2009 which mean a lot to me, in which I meditated on the bravery of the firefighters. One of the posts is about my father, a retired New York City firefighter and fire marshal, and the other is about the ethical meaning of the heroes of 9/11 and of self-sacrificial deaths in acts of heroism in general. First the relevant excerpt from the post about my own father:

My father is a brave man who has always thrived in jobs in which people’s lives are in his hands and in which his sharp mind was put to solving puzzles with serious impacts. He spent a decade as a firefighter, a decade as a fire marshall (and eventually supervising fire marshsall) and then midlife became a physician’s assistant. He has been one of those brave men willing to rush into fires, chase after criminals, and cut people open and take on the awesome responsibility of attempting to heal them. After September 11, when dozens of his former fellow firefighters perished, he never even mentioned it to me. I hadn’t even realized he knew any of them since he’d already been out of the fire department for 9 years and since I was only 23, those 9 years from when I was 14 felt like 20. But he had known and trained some of those heroes and yet he felt no need to bring up his own personal relationship to those men, no need to see or discuss that day as somehow about him.

This past summer I stressed to him how amazing I thought it was that he’s spent nearly 4 decades making his living off of high risk, high pressure jobs in which he holds people’s lives in his hands and yet that reality never sinks in to him. As I encouraged him to think about how many people were alive today because of his work it was as though he’d obviously never dwelt much on it. He almost seemed a bit embarrassed to do so.

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the most sinister and dangerous evils of our age, the banal evil. In studying the case of Adolph Eichmann who handled the logistics of deporting Jews to extermination camps with a bureaucrats indifference and lack of emotionally felt malice, she realized that the kind of evil that could be so desensitized and matter of fact as to not stem from anything more radical than thoughtlessness. Evil was positively mundane.

By contrast, my dad, and the many hundreds of thousands of doctors, firefighters, soldiers, and law enforcement agents who like him earn their pay saving and protecting lives, is the living embodiment of the banality of goodness. An every day hero mundanely taking the awesome responsibilities of other people’s fates in his hands. He, and they, make it look so ordinary that we can forever underappreciate what an awesome thing is being done.

But I don’t take it for granted, I admire the hell out of my dad, am proud every time I discover a trait, a quirk, a facial expression, a habit, or an expression that I realize comes from his genes or from mimicking him since I was little. Some people dread turning into their parents, I relish the thought given how much I love them.

And from my meditation on the nature of heroism (and specifically on what limited sense heroism involves “faith”), using the firefighters as paradigms:

[I]nsofar as the firefighters’ courage was rationally justifiable, it was ethically justifiable and had nothing to do with faith-based justifications.  We can fully understand within moral terms why those firefighters were morally justified. And it was faith alone that convinced those suicide pilots that palpably evil acts were acceptable when they clearly violated all moral prohibitions against the direct, unforced political murders of innocents.

Nonetheless, I do think that there is a certain connotation of the word “faith” that does apply to the firefighters and is not only commendable but supremely admirable.  While the firefighters’ reasoning was indeed rationally and morally confirmable and, so, justifiable, nonetheless from a subjective, personal point of view to commit one’s life to the fire as they did, even in the cause of justice, requires an infinite commitment beyond rational justification.

Reason can justify only finite actions for us.  It can tell us that “this specific act is good for that, for these reasons.”  Existentially however to lay down one’s life is to commit the entirety of what you are.  Even in the most rational deduction of one’s moral duty, the fallibility of human reason is such that there is still some room for doubt.  I categorically deny that one should make the infinite commitment of surrendering one’s life for less than the highest levels of certainty.   I categorically reject Kiekegaard’s crude permissiveness to stake an infinite commitment on the highly unlikely, the outright absurd, the obviously contradictory, or even the merely probable.    That is rankly reckless, irresponsible irrationalism which should never be romanticized.

But even where there is a 99% moral and rational certainty of an action’s worth, when one’s very existence is on the line the commitment to act even on 99% certainty is not completely existentially justified as far as I can see.  This is because even more primarily than rational or moral beings, we are rightly and necessarily self-concerned creatures with a primary commitment to our fundamental interests in our minimal survival and our maximum flourishing.  To be willing to surrender the entirety of what you are requires, I think, entire certainty that you should—a certainty that is never possible as long as the voice of one’s own survival concern is permitted even .01% weight in the calculations.   The act of accepting the dictates of one’s moral reasoning where it compels one only 99% but it costs you 100% of all you are and ever will be and fundamentally vetoes your rational concern for survival, makes one astoundingly heroic.  Quite simply it is the essence of heroism itself.

The fullest, most courageous realization of heroism trusts so completely in the dictates of moral conscience as to go beyond merely moral and rational reasonableness, prudence, decency, and dutifulness to make an absolute commitment of one’s entire self to the noble.  And such an absolute commitment can never be rationally justified, morally, or existentially justified by anything less than absolute rational, moral, and existential justification.  And given the finitude of our minds it is hard to say we ever have anything like that kind of absoluteness of justification present to our minds outside of only the most formal logical necessities like the law of non-contradiction.  No premise in a practical syllogism can be truly absolute and warrant a truly absolute conclusion upon which to have enough basis to make an absolute commitment.

So, when one commits one’s will to what reason and morality favor with great probability and with overwhelming calculation of relative goodness, but which nonetheless they cannot guarantee with absolute certainty or with absolute justification according to all the goods for which one lives, one makes as courageous and admirable a leap possible.  It is a leap of faith beyond mere reasonableness, prudence, and dutifulness to a sort of perfection of will according to reason and morality, a complete uniting of will to these things above and to the exclusion of everything else the will could ever attach itself to existentially, including the very conditions of its being itself.  And the commitment this embodies when the sacrifice is for others’ lives (which seems the only time we could ever be asked to knowingly give up our own) represents a bond of faithfulness to our community (however widely or narrow this word is interpreted) that goes so far beyond all of our finite contractual and moral obligations to others to be worth calling only a profound kind of “keeping faith” with those to whom and for whom we give our lives.


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